Seventy years after the liberation of Auschwitz, one of its survivors, Jiri Kosta, died last month at the age of 93. His life after the tortures of the Second World War was both typical of a survivor of the concentration camps as well as extraordinary. And while his experiences during the Nazi Regime shaped Kosta for the rest of his life, it was by no means limited by that experience.
That Kosta was able to live a full life was, as is so often the case with survivors of the concentration camps, down to chance. Or, in this case, down to a breadcrumb. Born in Prague in 1921 to German-Jewish parents, he was ordered in late 1941 to help set up what was to become the concentration camp Theresienstadt, in which he and his family were subsequently imprisoned. Because of his youth, he was a useful worker and managed to survive the daily routine in the concentration camp. However, he too was eventually ordered on to the last transport east to Auschwitz in October 1944, where he was to endure the mixture of torture and ritual humiliation that characterised the lives of those that were lucky enough to survive the ruthless selection process. With the advancement of the Red Army he was then forced on to a death march towards Germany. That he managed to escape to safety and survive the death march was down to luck. One morning, before the march was to set off, he had forgotten to take with him a piece of bread that he had saved and put aside. He managed to sneak back into the barracks to fetch this bread. There he found several other fellow prisoners hidden under beds who told him to do the same if he wanted to stay alive. In the chaos that the German troops were already in, the missing prisoners escaped their notice and Kosta survived.
Having survived both Theresienstadt and Auschwitz, Jiri Kosta went back to Prague to complete his education at the commercial college there. He soon found employment as office clerk but lost his job in 1950 when his parents were arrested under the Communist Regime. He had to spend the next 6 years working as a lathe operator before he was able to start teaching economics. From 1962 onwards he joined the Economics Institute of the Czech Academy of Science under Ota Šik and eventually obtained a doctorate in 1966. Kosta would later publish a festschrift for Šik’s 60th birthday together with Ulrich Gärtner entitled Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft : Kritik und Alternativen. Festgabe für Ota Šik zum 60. Geburtstag (220.c.97.2280).
Given his proximity to Šik, who was one of the key figures of the Prague Spring, it is hardly surprising that Kosta was also heavily involved in the 1968 movement. The violent end of the Prague Spring caused him to leave his home country for good. Having experienced persecution under the Nazi Regime and being determined to avoid something similar happening again, he left Prague for the “West” in September 1968. He spent 2 years in Vienna before moving to West Germany where he was then able to obtain a chair as Economics Professor at the University of Frankfurt.
At Frankfurt he specialized in socialist economy, an interest that was based on his own experiences under the communist regime. He worked as a professor between 1970 and 1987 and during that time published several books. In 1978, for example, he wrote Abriss der sozialökonomischen Entwicklung der Tschechoslowakei 1945-1977 (610:1.d.95.83), which examines the socio-economic development in Czechoslovakia. In 1981 he contributed to Zur marxistischen und neuen politischen Ökonomie, edited by Günter Hedtkamp (249.c.205.109).
After his retirement, Kosta remained active in the field of economics with publications and talks. In addition, he also started to focus more on his experiences in the Second World War. He wrote an autobiography that was published in 2001 Nie aufgegeben : ein Leben zwischen Hoffen und Bangen (C203.d.9692) that was later also translated into Czech. In 2008, he was one of the editors of Tschechische und slowakische Juden im Widerstand 1938-1945 (514:72.c.200.375). He became a part of the Zeitzeugen-Dialog project coordinated by Werner Imhof and Michael Jung for which he visited schools to talk about the persecution in the Nazi Regime as a contemporary witness. He also appeared in several TV documentaries about the Nazi Regime, for example in 2006 in Das Rote Kreuz im Dritten Reich and in 2008 in a documentary called Hitlers Ultimatum. While his professional life had been shaped by his time under a Communist Regime, he devoted the greater part of his retirement to educating others about Nazi Germany. Therefore, despite his great achievements in other fields, his wartime experiences were what most affected his life and what he most wanted to share.